Monday, January 30, 2012

Science And Nature Programming On Indian Television

Yesterday afternoon I watched a good documentary on the wild game trade and its social and ecological context on National Geographic. The setting was the Central African Republic and the hour long episode followed a researcher studying the hunters, traders and customers involved in Africa's bush meat trade. It was a sobering look at the decimation of wildlife that is occurring in these regions. Logging roads are reaching ever more in the interior and bush meat is highly prized,  due to old social preferences and a lack of alternative sources of protein.

The documentary brought back memories of some fine programming that used to be common on National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet. I say this because I continue to be deeply disappointed with the recent programming on these channels. I looked through the guide and here is a sample of the programs which form the bulk of the repertoire these days. I have divided them up into themes - Science Fiction - Alien Invasion, Crop Circles.. Adventure/Reality - Banged up Abroad, Survivor, Gold Rush Alaska.... Wildlife / Nature - Man vs Wild, Monster Fish, River Monsters, Worlds Deadliest Animals, Duel in the Swamp...

All are fast paced action packed dramas, full of adventurers getting into trouble abroad, or trying to "survive" in a mountain range somewhere or diving into swamps and running through forests grabbing at otters, fish or whatever small animals that come their way. ..The wildlife shows focus on life's brutal side, with plenty of sequences of lions hunting and crocodiles dismembering prey, all with a hushed but triumphant voice telling us that might is right in the jungle.

The kind of unhurried slow paced shows that exposed - through conversations and fine camerawork - the intricacies of a particular topic are being overwhelmed by a gonzo reporting style. Maybe it's the Steve Irwin effect that many nature reporters now feel compelled to run and grab at wild animals. The science depicted on these shows is minimal at best. And what example for conservation and respect for wildlife does it set with such an aggressive and intrusive film-making?

I miss those old shows on so many varied topics - Vets of Rural England, A Social History of Tofu, The Ecology of Tasmanian Tigers, Indonesian Mining Industry, The Chinese Homo erectus, to name just a few.  These shows were excellent examples of carefully thought out ideas and topics and were filled with richly detailed and nuanced contents on the cultural histories of people and communities and their interface with medicine, ecology, geology, evolution and genetics. Lots of relevant science was packed in an episode.

There are still a few shows in this vein being made even now.. Expedition To Borneo.. being a recent example. But mostly,  inane "survival" and extreme adventure episodes, duels between humans and animals and sensational violent hunting sequences with blood and gore are dominating the television screens.The assumption seems to be that people these days have very little attention spans and the best educative value would be provided by rapid visual stimulation and bombarding viewers with an array of facts and conclusions.

That leaves little space for depicting science as it really is - a process of knowing, wherein constructing a hypothesis, gathering data and analyzing it and finding out that that has opened up more questions than answered your initial one is really how we gain new knowledge and clear a path for the discoveries of tomorrow.


  1. Suvrat, I agree. Are there any internet based video-sites that give better quality information, the kind that used to come on National Geographic?

  2. hi Sunil - i am not aware of such sites. i guess it is quite expensive to make such episodes so only large organizations have the wherewithal. these days I turn to TV5 Monde a French Channel for some good anthropology /science documentaries. Thalassa and Geo are two good ones. check the local listing for your area if you get that channel. They are made the old fashioned way :)

    otherwise internet radio is another option if you can do without the visual. , quirks and quarks (canadian broadcasting service) , Nature podcasts quench my thirst somewhat!